Poem as snow

No updates to the rye diary as it is still under snow, and now under more snow.

The snow, which is still falling lightly, so lightly now, always sparks my heart. I love the way that it transforms the ordinary, the way it both cloaks and sharpens shapes. Here is the lilac.

Here is the view from my front porch.

It’s gorgeous and it’s temporary—gorgeous because it’s temporary.

Even with the inconvenience and the cancelled plans (this was supposed to be wine and chocolate weekend at the winery), the snow gives me a chance to step back or step out, feel and hear the crunching under my boots, and just breathe it all in.

That said, there’s danger, right?

People losing power, icy patches where you can slip and fall or where your car can skid out of control or just get stuck. Or, you might, like me, worry about the rhododendrons and go out in your pajamas and a jacket, with a broom and no gloves (I realized too late that I needed those gloves) to shake the heavy weight off the branches before they split off.

On the other side of snow’s beauty is risk.

And isn’t that what a poem is? The sounds and images collecting, building, and balancing between a palpable beauty that can make us gasp and the tension, discomfort, fear that makes us hold our breath?

Recently, I’ve been looking at my poems to locate where that tension begins–or if it’s even there. If it isn’t, what is the poem trying to do? What is it lacking? What have I avoided saying, and where have I avoided going? What is the story behind the story, and what is the feeling under the surface of the language? What’s at stake?

A poem changes the landscape of my day, but it cannot make that change profoundly without risk.

Meanwhile, the snow is still falling.

The rye diary: Day two and still waiting

Yes, a rye diary is not a daily effort at this point, as the winter rye is taking its time. I was hoping to show you a picture of new sprouts. Every time I walked past the patch, I’d bend close and examine the seeds left on the surface for signs of change. Saturday, after some rain, I thought I saw progress—miniscule roots venturing out. Maybe by the next day?

The next day brought snow—at first, just a scattering.

snow scattered on the ground

In the night, a blanket. Two days later, the rye patch is still covered, and the temperature huddles in the high 20s.

snow covering the garden

Not ideal for germination.

I love the snow anyway, and I started to think about it in terms of writing.

Snow obscures. I am all for the lyric, the figurative, but I have at times hidden what I’m saying under images or, more often, beguiling sounds. While I’m trying to make something beautiful, I might be freezing out the reader, and myself.

Snow transforms. Now we’re getting somewhere. As snow changes the familiar landscape, it invites me to see those trees, rooftops, and garbage cans differently. A poem can similarly transform my understanding, give me that same “Ah!” feeling of waking up to a world snow-rendered.

Snow disrupts. I have to change my routine, find my heavy boots. Disruption in a poem catches my attention.

Snow on my rye patch makes me wonder what’s going on below the surface. It also makes me wait, which gets me thinking about the advice to put a poem in a drawer for X amount of time. I do not usually do that (what? patience?). During my thesis work this year, I focus on a few poems at a time, while the rest are in a virtual drawer—or under snow. This gives me some distance from them.

When I come back to that temporarily neglected work, I see new gaps, new flaws, new stones to turn over or toss aside. Even my poem that has rye in it, and which I thought was the best poem I have written yet, and which has been rejected multiple times–this morning I found some tricky places where I might not want to be tricky.

How do you get distance from your work? (And if you set poems aside, what’s your magic waiting time?) What are your snowy writing connections?

The rye diary

Ever since my daughter planted cover crops in the fall of 2016, I’ve been fascinated by winter rye. How tall and glorious it grows. The subtle colors of its ears. The Catcher in the Rye, and the delicious homophone with wry.

Although it’s almost February, I finally ordered the seeds, and this morning went out to plant.

packet of rye seed

First, I had some clearing out to do:

back yard

The dead tomato plants still tied to their stakes, some Swiss chard, kale from two years ago, and a canticle of Canterbury Bells.

Next came the raking. The instructions said flat. I said flat-ish. Then it was time to broadcast the seeds. I wasn’t prepared for how wonderful it felt to stick my hand inside a one-pound bag of grain, and then strew the seeds over the ground. Liberally. The last step was to rake them in. Whatever. I hurried, certain that at any moment a flock of birds would descend to dine on my crop.

Here’s the final picture. Honestly, not nearly as interesting as the first.

bare dirt patch

And while I’m out in the dirt, I have time to think about writing, think about how messiness gives the eye and the mind nooks and crannies to explore. How it feels to dig in and turn over, to break the blockages apart, to weed through the words. How the rake finds new roots and clumps get rid of. Sometimes I get an idea for a poem.

This morning, I thought about how I’ve been working on a poem that complains about those people who say home-baked bread can’t be “from scratch” if you don’t grow your own wheat–and here I was planting rye! And I thought about how it’s better to experiment–and risk failure–in a poem, just as this rye patch may fail. This might be the shortest diary ever. We’ll see.

For now, all the magic is yet to happen, if it isn’t devoured by a thousand house sparrows first.

How do you let your mind loose? How do you experiment? How do you fail?

Pick your practice

My piano teacher used to say that perfect practice makes perfect. No pressure. When my daughter speaks of yoga practice or meditation practice, I think of showing up, arriving with your full self. And isn’t that what we want to do when we write? Show up to the page with our whole selves and create something that we’ll be able to believe is worth sharing?

Speaking for myself, it ain’t easy.

In November, after reading memorials to Lucie Brock-Broido, I took out her book Stay, Illusion and started a practice of pulling one image or line from a poem and writing from or in response to it. Will any of this turn into “real” poems? Maybe. The point is less about the results and more about showing up to give her poems time and attention and to experiment, play, and try writing in a way that doesn’t feel familiar to me.

I confess that I have not followed this practice strictly. Some days, other poems insist on being written. Some days, I fail to carve out the time. Most days I have a momentary panic that nothing will come. But it’s a practice, so I take a breath and start with something, anything, because I do believe in showing up, in reading as much as possible, in writing as close to daily as possible, in helping poetry to get into my body so that when the magic happens, I’m there for it with my whole self.

Today is day fifty. Only fifteen more poems in the book, and then it will be time for a new practice. I don’t think it needs to be grand or burdensome. It could be writing one sentence or one list of words. It could take ten minutes, or five. It could be reading one poem—and over at The Poetry Department, you can find an impressive list of daily and weekly reading resources.

What is your practice? Or what would it be, and how can you make that happen?

Some resistance is futile

On his blog, Steven Pressfield has been talking about artistic resistance—those times when we get some feedback and, feeling crushed, discard all comments and suggestions. He compares that resistance to the stages of grief (shock, denial, etc., through acceptance). He also discusses how harmful it can be to resist and reject the feedback.

Read the whole post, but briefly he talks about how important it is to work through our reaction so that we can truly take in that feedback—step back and hear it objectively, look at our manuscripts and see how those comments might affect it.

This works well if you have a trusted reader (he does). But what if you’re receiving those comments from an editor or teacher you don’t know well? What if they rewrite your poem to illustrate what they mean? For me, the rewrite is an especially tricky issue—the result might be brilliant, but what do I do with this, now that it doesn’t even feel like mine anymore?

My strategy: After I step back, take a break and get a little distance, I look for the underlying intent–what is the impulse behind the edits, how can I use it in my own voice? If I know what’s driving the suggestion, I can keep the conversation open, keep working on the poem, and learn new things in the process.

What are your strategies for hearing and using comments and suggestions?